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Chinese Tourism Spend Props Up Subdued Japanese Fashion Sector

With local consumers unusually cautious and value-focussed, Japan's fashion designers are finding the spend by the ever increasing number of mainland visitors a vital lifeline, according to many exhibitors at this year's Fashion World Tokyo.

Photo: Entering a phase of expansion: The Fashion World Tokyo.
Entering a phase of expansion: The Fashion World Tokyo.
Photo: Entering a phase of expansion: The Fashion World Tokyo.
Entering a phase of expansion: The Fashion World Tokyo.

When you pull the various levers of the economy as drastically as Shinzo Abe, Japan's Prime Minister, has done over the last couple of years, you can expect to wreak major changes. The question, of course, is just what change will ensue, as well as the inevitable corollary: "Will it prove beneficial?" This year's Fashion World Tokyo went some of the way to providing an answer to both.

The latest instalment of Fashion World Tokyo (Spring), a fair aimed squarely at the business side of the trade, as ever, showcased upcoming styles, revealed business trends and provided an insight into the continuing creativity and appeal of Japanese fashion. The noticeable expansion of the event – as well as the projected enhancements to the autumn event – showed the organisers' faith in Japan as the ideal setting for a major Asian fashion trade show.

Miki Oba, a spokesperson for Reed Exhibitions Japan, the event organiser, was predictably upbeat about the expansion of the show. Explaining the developments, she said: "This time it is about twice the size it was last time, because we have 401 exhibitors from 25 countries. The next show, in the autumn, will be bigger again. We are trying to improve the fashion business, especially in Japan, and we are expecting to make this the largest exhibition in Asia within five years."

This ambition was reflected in the choice of high-profile speakers for the show's conference programme – Hiroshi Ohnishi, President and CEO of Isetan Mitsukoshi Holdings and Keita Maruyama, an award-winning fashion designer. Another clear sign that the event had entered an expansive phase was the sheer number of first-time exhibitors.

Explaining this renewed interest in the show, Oba said: "While Hong Kong is more international than Japan, the market in Japan is also important for the fashion world. The Japanese are currently trying to expand their business on more of a global basis."

For some, Japanese styles often seem wilfully idiosyncratic and out-of-sync with other fashion markets. Arguably, this is also a sign of its uniqueness and creativity. With this thinking very much to the forefront, The Designers' Gate section, a dedicated zone at this year's show, presented a range of new designer brands. This included Valentijn Vanmeir – a Belgian and Japanese husband-and-wife team – and its range of garments and bags with a distinct retro-futuristic appeal.

According to Vanmeir, a key feature of Japan's fashion scene is the way that a large number of distinct fashion subcultures are able to coexist, all supported by the in-group/out-group structure that typifies Japanese society. This means that many of these subcultures receive strong support from peer groups, while the attitude of society in general remains extremely tolerant of non-mainstream fashions.

Another new brand making an impression was Freni Yori. Launched by Korean national Jay Kimm, as with Vanmeir, she is a non-Japanese drawn to study and work in the country by its diverse fashion culture.

Her reason for being based in the Japanese capital is quite straightforward. She said: "I studied in Tokyo so I chose to start in Tokyo." Her designs make use of luxurious fabrics, typically silks and metallic crushed velvet and reference the classic styles of the 1920s and 1930s. Revealing the source of her inspiration, she said: "I took my cue from a movie – The Last Emperor."

Photo: Clunky shoes from Nuts World.
Clunky shoes from Nuts World.
Photo: Clunky shoes from Nuts World.
Clunky shoes from Nuts World.
Photo: Lower hems, higher demand.
Lower hems, higher demand.
Photo: Lower hems, higher demand.
Lower hems, higher demand.

The large number of debutante exhibitors gave the fair something of a tentative, almost experimental, feel. Many were clearly just trying the show out for size, and it is too early to say if they will become regular attendees. Both Vanmeir and Kim, however, said they had received considerable interest from buyers and distributors – surely good news on the rebooking front.

In terms of the fashion scene in general, the trend seems to be for clothing with a more muted and relaxed vibe. This saw natural materials, typically in monochromes and greys, featuring widely. Keiko Iijima, a designer for Camomile, a Japanese shoe brand, as well as for her own Nuts World line, said that, even where natural materials were not being used, it was important to at least suggest their presence.

Her own range of shoes – made from polyurethane and fake leather and retailing for around US$30 – had the somewhat 'clumpy' look of shoes from a bygone age. A number of fetching touches, including hemp shoelaces and wood-style soles, only added to the relaxed vibe. According to a number of other specialist footwear designers at the event, flat and wedge soles have pushed out high heels, while monochrome colours were definitely in – ideally with the addition of shiny or glittery material to add accents.

Another trend – according to Masumi Kikuchi, who was in town to launch her ethnic-inspired Black Roots Queen label – was the increased popularity of longer garments, complete with lower hemlines and more exposure around the bust and shoulders. With this particular look, jackets are deemed optional.

In her own case, drawing on inspiration from Black American street fashion, Kikuchi was part of a noticeably wider trend towards domestic manufacture. Indeed, signs proclaiming "Made in Japan" were ubiquitous throughout the fair. According to Kikuchi, her own garments were produced at a factory in Fukushima Prefecture, a part of Japan where the government has been supporting industries in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake.

Overall, the government's policy of devaluing the yen through monetary easing has made domestic manufacture more economically feasible. This has noticeably lowered the bar for small designer start-ups, many of whom lack the resources to invest in overseas production. Several of the new exhibitors at this year's Fashion World Tokyo clearly fitted into this mould.

The other side of the Abenomics coin, however, is that the weaker yen – combined with last April's tax hike – has pushed up living costs for consumers, while lowering their wages in real terms, something that has inevitably kept demand sluggish. As a result, there were clear indications the Japanese fashion sector is increasingly dependent on spend from foreign tourists attracted by the low yen, especially those from mainland China. Many of the Japanese fashions not yet available in China are seen as status symbols by visiting mainlanders.

In line with this, Daisuke Takayama, Chief Executive of Good For Everyone, a Kobe-based importer and distributor of emerging European brands, said this year's event had seen a considerable presence of buyers from across Asia, all looking to distribute Japanese brands in their own countries. He said: "We, ourselves, haven't been doing so well here. This show has many Asian people who want made-in-Japan products. Our brands are imported brands, so they not so interested in them. We cannot do deals to distribute our brands in Asia as our territory is only Japan."

Faring slightly better was Simon Udall, the owner of Silk Road Trading, an importer and distributor based in the Japanese tourist centre of Kyoto. In Tokyo to promote a range of men's leather bags created by Rowallan, a Scottish brand, he reported considerable interest in their simple, classic designs.

Issuing a clear caveat, Udall maintained it was hard to read Japanese economic trends, saying: "When you're based in Kyoto, it's very hard to judge the local picture because there are so many tourists."

While a growing interest in Japanese designed and made goods by tourists from across Asia was clearly evident, a less obvious trend was one more focussed on domestic consumers. According to Camomile's Iijima, there was a "puchi" (mini) trend towards far cheaper goods.

In effect, there seems to be something of a role-reversal taking place, with Asian shoppers behaving like the brand-obsessed Japanese consumers of several decades ago. At the same time, many Japanese shoppers are now behaving like the typical Asian shoppers of the past – placing a particular premium on price and value.

Photo: Made in Japan: Domestic production on the up.
Made in Japan: Domestic production on the up.
Photo: Made in Japan: Domestic production on the up.
Made in Japan: Domestic production on the up.

Fashion World Tokyo (Spring) was held at Tokyo Big Site from 1-3 April. This year it attracted 16,023 visitors compared to 12,579 last year. The Autumn 2015 event will be held from 30 September to 2 October.

Marius Gombrich, Special Correspondent, Tokyo

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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